Malone finished packing his bag. His flight left Heathrow in a little over three hours. The trial was finished and the terrorists convicted, each sentenced to life in prison. His two months in England were over. A light rap on his hotel room door disturbed the silence, and Stephanie Nelle entered. His boss had flown over a few days ago for the verdict.
“Ready to leave?” she asked.
“This was a tough one, wasn’t it?”
“You could say that. My faith in the good guys is beginning to wane.”
Everything he’d learned from and about Thomas Mathews still bothered him.
He folded the last of his shirts into the bag and zipped the lid shut.
In the weeks after the missile attack the press had been told precious little. The two Yourstones’ deaths were blamed on a robbery gone bad. Eleanor was saying nothing, playing the part of the grieving widow. And none of the royals would ever talk. The queen privately extracted a written declaration from her daughter renouncing all claims to the throne. There would be no repeats of regicide, or at least the effort would do her no good. Eleanor was allowed to keep her title, but no more royal duties. The official line was her desire to withdraw from public life and mourn her husband.
He laid his travel bag on the floor.
And not a word from the Secret Intelligence Service.
But he hadn’t expected any.
“William called,” Stephanie said. “The queen has asked us to come for a quick visit. She wants to say goodbye.”
He glanced at his watch.
“Let’s do it fast.”
* * *
He followed Stephanie through Buckingham Palace and into the audience hall. Victoria sat at the far side of the long chamber in her wheelchair, Albert standing beside her. William and Prince James stood off to the side. An array of ancient armor and weapons adorned the chamber, the finely carved, cream-colored walls resembling lace.
“Come in, Mr. Malone,” Victoria said.
Her pale voice resonated through the vast space, and she sounded upbeat.
He stepped toward her. “You’re looking well, Your Majesty.”
“I feel much better. My strength is returning. It is like a new day here.”
He was glad for her.
“I was wondering,” Victoria said, “if you might kneel.”
An odd request, but he could not refuse her.
“For service to this Crown, which included placing your life in jeopardy, I want to bestow upon you the title, knight of the realm.”
Albert stepped forward, holding a glistening silver sword, the scabbard afire with rubies and diamonds. He raised the blade and gently touched the tops of Malone’s shoulders.
“From this day forward,” the queen said, “you shall be known as Sir Harold Earl Malone, Protector of the Realm. This honor is granted by the Crown only to its loyal servants. And you sir, are my most loyal. You saved my grandson’s life. For that I, and this nation, owe you more than a mere knighthood.”
He was a bit overwhelmed. He hadn’t expected this. He stood. “I’m honored. Thank you.”
The queen smiled. “Ms. Nelle told me of your displeasure with commendations. She says you’ve refused quite a few. I decided to bestow one upon you that you could not refuse.”
“As I said yesterday, it would be hard to refuse so gracious a lady.”
Victoria chuckled. “Still the charmer.”
“I see you also learned my full given name. I’m not often called Harold Earl.”
“Ms. Nelle was kind enough to tell us. But I do wonder, where did the name Cotton come from?”
He smiled. “It’s a really long story.”
“Let’s agree then that, one day, you will return and tell me.”
“Absolutely. Might I ask, Your Majesty, what about Richard? What will happen to the succession?”
“My son has already signed his abdication. He will forfeit his right to the throne in favor of his son. That announcement will be made next week.”
Which further explained Mathews’ silence. The spymaster surely knew. And this was precisely what he wanted to happen.
“My advisers say the move will be greeted with much favor,” the queen said. “It will also diffuse the rumors of attempted regicide that the press, for some reason, cannot seem to abandon.” She reached up and grabbed her grandson’s hand. “Albert will marry within the year. His chosen one is a fine lady. She will make an excellent queen. The nation is in good hands.”
Malone studied the new heir apparent. The English monarchy did seem in good hands. He glanced over at Stephanie. He’d wanted to tell the queen about Mathews, revealing everything, but his boss had vetoed the idea.
“The grave site in Iceland has been fully mapped and the artifacts removed,” the queen said. “The manuscript you found is indeed a Gildas original, a lost volume that proves Arthur was real. We plan an announcement of the find next week to coincide with Richard’s abdication to Albert.”
He smiled at the irony. Victoria now planned to do what Yourstone and all of the other monarchs before her had tried and failed. Use Arthur to revitalize the throne. But she just might succeed. The timing was right. The people would greet the news of Arthur’s return, and Albert’s succession, with great joy.
Once a myth, now proven real.
The Celtic warrior.
Not a king. Just a leader of men, fighting for what he believed. A few lines from Tennyson came to mind. Applicable to a king lamenting about his death or a queen worried about the future of her realm.
Which made him again think of Thomas Mathews. Whose soul he would not pray for. Stephanie had officially let MI6 know that what had happened would not be forgotten. But Mathews’ continued silence signaled no remorse. And Malone understood. This was the spy business. Not for the faint of heart.
And maybe, just maybe, he’d be there to see it.